What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed in the morning? Be honest.
If your answer included something that involved an electronic device, you are not alone. Though you might assume a trip to the bathroom or starting a pot of coffee would top the list, for many, these other morning rituals come second to checking email, turning on the television or even (gasp!) looking at Facebook.
And, I’ll go ahead and make my painful confession: My iPhone is in my hand before I get out of bed in the morning, the glowing screen breaking the darkness and prompting my husband to suggest I get help for my hopeless screen addiction.
I know I’m not alone.
If our own lives revolve so heavily around the use of these devices, how do we expect our children to be any different?
According to Annie Fox, author of “Teaching Kids to Be Good People,” “The short answer is: We can’t. You don’t need a degree in child development to know that kids are always watching the way we behave, and what we do speaks much louder than what we say.
“If you truly value family time you have to unplug on a regular basis and, during that time, enforce a family moratorium on digital media,” Fox says. “But make sure when you say ‘time to unplug’ that you are actually offering something of value in its place: a board game, an opportunity to prepare and cook and eat a meal together, or a family outing. The proper example for adults to set is one of balance.”
Triple A: age appropriate access
“The developmental needs of kids, at different phases of their lives, should be the determining factor when it comes to what kinds of electronics, what content and how much time they should spend,” says Fox. “In the same way that children respond best to age-appropriate content in stories and films and age-appropriate bedtimes, the same is true for setting guides when it comes to the content and time spent with electronic media.”
Frederick Lane, an attorney and author of several books including his most recent, “Cybertraps for the Young,” agrees with Fox, asserting that “The biggest problem facing families with respect to the use of electronics is that children have access at younger and younger ages to sophisticated devices that offer capabilities greatly in excess of their judgment and experience.”
Lane feels strongly that younger children should not be given unfiltered access to the whole spectrum of electronic devices available today.
“I don’t think that elementary-age children should be carrying smart phones at all,” Lane says. “If parents feel a cell phone is important for contacting the child during the day, find the simplest model possible, and preferably one that can’t take photos or videos. Thanks to the availability of Internet connectivity on all those phones and an almost infinite number of receptive websites, the images and videos can be distributed globally in seconds. Even high-school students don’t fully appreciate the potential consequences of distributing some photos, let alone kids in elementary school.”
For families with younger children, Lane recommends a new service provided by Amazon called Kindle Free Time, which allows parents to set not only the total time that a child can spend on the Kindle Fire, but also what percentage of time can be spent on various activities, including videos, games and reading.
But most families encompass children of different ages. Which brings up a question those parents deal with daily: How do you say “yes” to one child and “no” to the other? Lane reveals, “I went through this scenario myself, with kids that were as much as five years apart, and it is not easy. But even though the younger kids undoubtedly will think that they can do anything the older kids can do — particularly as devices get easier and easier to use — they still may not be mature enough to fully understand the potential consequences of using a particular device. Teaching older siblings that it’s rude to flaunt their devices or expose younger siblings to inappropriate material is another valuable childhood lesson.”
How much is too much?
According to psychologist Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, “There is no real formula for the amount of time people should spend with digital devices,” Greenfield says. “As more of our lives are spent in front of a screen, it becomes more of a fine line between what is necessary and what is abuse.” However, Greenfield does believe that there are ways for parents to put rules in place to avoid crossing this line. He suggests that parents ask a few simple questions of their families’ digital usage: Is it interfering with their relationships? Is it interfering with their academic performance? And, is it interfering with their athletic performance?
Once these answers have been determined, families should come up with their own blueprint for electronic usage, says Greenfield. “It used to be suggested that screen time should be limited to an hour a day. But, now, that is unrealistic.” Today, he says, two hours a day may be reasonable.
“Families should set up a digital nutrition plans,” advises Greenfield. “Kids can choose from a menu of options but have to stay within their limitations.” But, he warns, setting the parameters is a lot easier than enforcing them. “Parents have to be on top of it.”
When asked if he believes the overuse of electronics is increasing or decreasing among families, Greenfield says, “We’re at the tipping point in our culture in terms of recognition. We’re just getting to the point where we realize this is more of an issue — that these devices can cause real imbalance in peoples’ lives.”